NPR Review: 'The Dinner Guest,' By Gabriela Ybarra In her new autofictional novel, Spanish writer Gabriela Ybarra turns past tragedy — the murder of her grandfather by Basque separatists — into a seamless blend of art, politics and private life.
NPR logo Breaking Down The Doors To The Past In 'The Dinner Guest'

Review

Book Reviews

Breaking Down The Doors To The Past In 'The Dinner Guest'

The Spanish writer Gabriela Ybarra comes from a politically elite family. In the 1970s, her family was one of about a dozen that occupied every position of power in Vizcaya, a province in the Basque region of Spain. This made them targets for the left-wing Basque separatist group ETA, which kidnapped and murdered Ybarra's grandfather, Javier Ybarra, six years before she was born. That kidnapping serves as the point of departure for her debut novel, The Dinner Guest, masterfully translated by Natasha Wimmer. In elegant, flat prose, Ybarra links her grandfather's very public murder to her mother's swift and private death from colon cancer. In doing so, she puts the increasingly popular form of autofiction to exceptional use.

The Dinner Guest is a seamless blend of art, politics, and private life. Ybarra researched her grandfather's death heavily and includes excerpts from newspaper stories, as well as ETA communiqués. Her prose reads very much like reportage, which creates a certain tension: How is she different from the newspaper writers who covered her grandfather's death? Is she right to transform her grief into art?

After Ybarra's mother dies, she expresses her grief through re-enactment. She starts to "consciously repeat some of the things that happened to me a year ago, when she was sick. This week, for example, I called the guy I slept with the day after she had her first colonoscopy at the hospital." Soon, The Dinner Guest takes on the floating spirit of a re-enactment. The novel is anxious to enter a past reality, but unable to do so.

This anxiety gives fiction a purpose in a book that otherwise could have been a memoir. Ybarra uses her imagination as a literary battering ram, breaking down the door to the past. In her preface, she explains that she found no alternative. "Often," she writes, "imagining has been the only way I've had to try to understand." As a result, The Dinner Guest has a helpless energy that novels like Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle and Ben Lerner's Leaving the Atocha Station — incidentally, also a book originating from an act of terrorism, in this case the 2004 Madrid train bombings — lack. Knausgaard and Lerner choose themselves as subjects, and have as much access to their own inner lives as they want. Ybarra chooses her dead mother and grandmother, and beyond her imagination, she has no access to them at all.

Fiction also serves a purpose in connecting Ybarra to her father, who is alive but distant. "During my mother's illness," Ybarra writes, "my father and I had to get to know each other again. I'm not sure when we lost touch. Sometimes I think it was the day I banned him from my room, forbidding him to read me any more bedtime poems." Throughout the novel, art and literature are the only way Ybarra and her father connect. When she is a child, this leads to a certain fusion between art and life. Even "stories about 'La ETA' and my grandfather's killing were mixed with other stories that my father told me about Pompeii, Degas's ballerinas, Darío's 'the princess is sad' poem, and Max Ernst's bird men." No wonder, then, that Ybarra turns her own story about "La ETA" into art.

Ybarra is far from the first writer to use autofiction for political purposes. Philip Roth did it to brilliant and baffling effect in Operation Shylock; Reinaldo Arenas wrote five autofictional novels after escaping Castro's Cuba; and more recently, the Spanish writers Marta Sanz and Clara Usón have produced excellent works of feminist autofiction. Ybarra is not unique in deciding, as she does in The Dinner Guest, that "[my] private life is still political." But she makes that decision remarkably clearly, and executes it remarkably well.

Perhaps this is because Ybarra's life has never been private. For her, there is no inherent drama in writing a family story. The story is already news. She's had to reckon with other writers' presence throughout her life, including after her mother died, when "three obituaries appeared in the paper. At first I couldn't understand why my mother's death was of interest to the press. Then I was frustrated." She tries to write her own obituaries, but struggles to condense her memories, writing, "My mother wasn't three paragraphs long, or six." Nor was her grandfather's death.

The Dinner Guest operates as a fuller obituary, a memorial to both Ybarra's mother and her grandfather. It is a quiet act of public mourning, and of resistance to public memory. For many of us, fiction serves the second purpose. It offers an empathic way to understand history, which, as a reading public, we seem to need. For Ybarra, that need is far more acute. Her life may always be political, but in The Dinner Guest, she uses fiction to claim it as her own.

Lily Meyer is a writer and translator living in Washington, D.C.